There were high hopes for U.S.-Russian relations in 2013. All signs seemed to indicate that a renewed formula for the relationship between Washington and Moscow was in the works.
But as 2014 approaches, these hopes have been largely disappointed. The reset between the White House and the Kremlin has been succeeded by purely transactional relations against the background of deep mutual mistrust. And this may be the “new normal” in U.S.-Russian relations, at least for the next few years. For there to be any significant improvement, the two countries will have to focus on expanding cooperation where their interests meet and reducing lingering animosity where they disagree.
The Ups and Downs
With Barack Obama’s reelection as president of the United States, many expected to see a “reset of the reset” in 2013. Vladimir Putin, back in the Kremlin, was planning a new beginning with his counterpart in the White House. There were high-level exploratory visits in the spring, an agreement in May to work together on the Syrian crisis, and a top-level meeting in June on the margins of the G8 in Northern Ireland.
But over the summer, things began to go awry. The two countries interpreted the Geneva I accords on political transition in Syria differently. Putin refused to extradite Edward Snowden, the fugitive contractor who revealed U.S. government secrets, which led Obama to cancel a U.S.-Russian summit scheduled for September. By the end of August, when Obama announced his decision that the United States should use military force against Syria in response to the chemical attack on a Damascus suburb, the U.S.-Russian relationship had sunk to its lowest point in the five years since the Russo-Georgian war.
Then, a spectacular turnaround seemed to happen. During a short encounter on the margins of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg in early September, Putin presented Obama with a plan to rid Syria of chemical weapons. Within two weeks, Damascus agreed and the United States and Russia negotiated a framework for Syria’s chemical disarmament. What had appeared next to impossible—getting a country to give up its chemical weapons in the midst of a civil war—became a reality. Building on this success, Moscow and Washington increased their efforts to convene a peace conference on Syria known as “Geneva II.” Russia also supported U.S. outreach to Iran, which resulted in an interim accord on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Yet, despite this real and productive cooperation, the atmosphere for the U.S.-Russian relationship remained charged, even poisonous. And this atmosphere is unlikely to improve much in 2014.
The good news is that cooperation between Moscow and Washington will continue in those areas where Russian and American interests meet. As long as the Obama administration continues prioritizing a diplomatic approach to Syria and Iran, for example, the Kremlin will be its partner.
This cooperation will take a specific form. The model that has emerged is based on both partners’ co-equality and co-leadership in dealing with particular issues on which their interests align.
Russia understands, of course, that in terms of economic and military power, as well as political influence and social attractiveness, it is not the United States’ equal by far. However, in the limited number of cases where Moscow and Washington can cooperate around the world in the foreseeable future, Russia will insist on being on equal footing with the United States and will accept nothing less.
Areas of Cooperation, Competition, and Potential Conflict
If Washington and Moscow can continue to cooperate on these terms, there are several areas in which they can productively work together in 2014, such as ensuring that Syria’s chemical disarmament is completed. Reaching a political settlement to end the war in Syria, however, will be more difficult. U.S. and Russian stances on Syria remain very different. But Moscow has watched, with much satisfaction, Washington move closer to the Russian view that the Syrian opposition is fickle and dominated by jihadist elements. And neither Washington nor Moscow wants Syria to be a breeding and training ground for extremists who can pose a danger to both Russia and the West.
Yet, even if U.S.-Russian collaboration on Syria were perfect, it would not be enough to stop the conflict. Regional powers, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran, have much more at stake in Syria than either Russia or the United States, and each will be aiming for an outcome that best serves its interests.
There may also be limited room for U.S.-Russian cooperation on Iran. In 2014, the interim accord on Iran’s nuclear program will either lead to a lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear issue or unravel, ushering in new tensions and increasing the likelihood of a military conflict. Moscow, which wants neither a war against Iran nor a nuclear-armed Tehran, can be expected to help facilitate an agreement between Iran and the international community. Yet it is Washington and Tehran that will be the main players, with Israel and Saudi Arabia as the main supporting actors.
Apart from Syria and Iran, there will be few sticky situations in which the United States and Russia are likely to cooperate in 2014. Internal developments in North Korea may translate into an international crisis, but it is China rather than Russia that has been the principal partner to Washington in its dealings with Pyongyang.
In Afghanistan, which will see the withdrawal of most U.S.-led combat forces in 2014, there is a degree of commonality between U.S. and Russian interests, but not nearly enough to warrant close cooperation. Moscow’s focus after the withdrawal will be on building its defenses in Central Asia, where it will celebrate the closure of the U.S. military transit base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan. Russia will also concentrate on curbing drug trafficking, which has only grown worse since the U.S.-friendly government replaced the Taliban regime in Kabul.
On a range of broad, global issues, U.S. and Russian interests are sufficiently close to warrant cooperation in 2014. These include the global financial situation, cybersecurity, counterterrorism, and climate change. Russia will host both the 2014 Winter Olympics and the G8 summit next year in Sochi. In conjunction with the summit, Obama may hold a bilateral meeting with Putin. The two leaders will need to focus not only on areas of potential cooperation but also on their differences, which require careful management.
In a number of areas, U.S.-Russian competition and cooperation will go hand in hand in 2014. One such area is the Arctic, which Moscow sees as essentially belonging to the five countries that surround it, including both Russia and the United States. There, the Kremlin will continue to promote its claims to the continental shelf and build military outposts.
In the High North, Russia is not averse to economic cooperation with U.S. companies—as demonstrated by the recent deal between U.S. energy firm ExxonMobil and Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft—but it will press for maximum advantage. Broader economic cooperation between Russia and the United States will depend not so much on the two governments and the relations between them as on the business climate within Russia. Putin has sought to improve this climate, but his technocratic measures are still falling short.
The field of arms control, the mainstay of U.S.-Soviet relations and the original platform for the reset, will probably lay fallow in 2014. Putin sees no chance for further strategic arms reductions given that the United States is both continuing with a modified version of its ballistic missile defense program despite the promise of an Iran agreement and developing prompt global strike capabilities that will allow it to hit distant targets with non-nuclear weapons in a short period of time. Moreover, Putin warns, the fruits of past agreements in this sphere may be in danger. The United States, for its part, will try to engage Russia in discussions of strategic stability. Such discussions may be useful, but they are unlikely to yield concrete results or enhance the level of mutual trust.
Direct geopolitical competition between Moscow and Washington will be limited. The Obama administration generally lacks interest in the former Soviet space, where Russia is busy building the Eurasian Union, a proposed policy and economic initiative that would link post-Soviet states and is Moscow’s first major foreign policy project since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The United States will vacate its outpost in Kyrgyzstan and will not object to recent moves by Armenia that suggest it is moving closer to integration with Russia instead of toward an association with the European Union.
But there are still some geopolitical issues with the potential to cause conflict. The EU-Russian standoff over Ukraine has already seen Washington supporting Kiev’s association with the West and criticizing Moscow’s policies in the region. In 2014, Ukraine, with its severe economic problems, fractious elites, and regional diversity, may become a serious irritant in Russian-Western, including Russian-American, relations.
Russia’s domestic situation has recently become an important factor weighing on relations with the United States. Putin’s policy of “sovereignization,” the manifestation of his overarching desire to consolidate power at home, aims not only at achieving equality in U.S.-Russian relations but also at eliminating outside influence on Russian domestic politics. There are no major elections in Russia scheduled for 2014, but Putin’s self-avowed conservatism pits him against pro-Western liberals at home and the bulk of public opinion in the United States and Europe.
For its part, the U.S. administration and Congress may expand the “Magnitsky list” of Russian officials accused of human rights abuses who face sanctions in the United States. And the Sochi Olympics will put Russia under international scrutiny, allowing critics of the Russian regime a more visible platform for airing their views.
From “Normal” to “Normal-Plus”
Overall, U.S.-Russian relations are unlikely to head toward a serious crisis in 2014, but they are also unlikely to improve much. Russia will face financial difficulties, as its economy is expected to perform poorly, but this will not mellow Moscow’s policies. The United States will find managing global affairs increasingly challenging, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, but it will hardly see Russia as a natural partner.
Yet there is no fundamental antagonism between the former Cold War adversaries. In 2014, a dedicated effort can be made to gradually transform the “new normal” in U.S.-Russian relations—one of targeted cooperation in an atmosphere of general adversity—into at least a “normal-plus” in which cooperation is carefully expanded to new areas while the atmosphere is progressively sanitized.
This sort of transformation will undoubtedly be difficult. But those in both countries who believe that a better relationship between Washington and Moscow can serve the national interests of Americans and Russians alike may be up to the challenge.